English Lyric Poetry: The Early Seventeenth Century

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English Lyric Poetry: The Early Seventeenth Century. By Jonathan F. S. Post. London and New York: Routledge. 1999. xvii + 323 pp. 50 [pounds sterling].

Post opens with the observation, `Literary histories are supposed to be things of the past' (p. ix), and certainly the format of this one seems a throwback to a former time. Intended as a guide to its subject for `both beginning and more advanced students', the book proceeds simply from one poet to the next, with the most canonical given chapters to themselves (Donne, Jonson, Herbert, Milton of the 1645 Poems, Vaughan, and Marvell) and the less canonical grouped in three other chapters (Drayton, Wither, and company in `Patriotic and Popular Poets'; Carew, Herrick, and company in `Caroline Amusements'; eight women poets in `From Wroth to Philips'). Post's treatment of each follows a regular pattern: a few paragraphs or pages of historical and biographical information prepare the way for several smart, pithy generalizations about the poet's characteristic themes, perspectives, modes, and stylistic habits, and these are efficiently illustrated by a sampling of representative poems or excerpts of poems. With each successive poet, his or her characteristic features are compared and contrasted with those of the poets discussed before. So, for example, Post leads into his analysis of Jonson's `Inviting a Friend to Supper' by noting that `Donne, the master of metaphor whose yoking of opposites has long been seen as his special trademark, searches as few poets ever have to find resemblance amid difference', while `Jonson, the poet of metonymy for whom listing, not yoking, is at the core of his distinctly ethical vision, seeks to identify, to define, and frequently to rank individuals and objects in relation to one another in this world'; thus, `if "The Good-morrow", with its taut dialectics of body and soul, time and eternity, and its allusively symbolic language positing worlds within worlds is central to Donne's art, then "Inviting a Friend to Supper" lies at the heart of Jonson's' (p. 24).

Characterizations such as these reflect Post's practical understanding that students appreciate having handles to hang on to when they venture into this difficult period of English literature, as well as his `belief' that `the poetry of the earlier seventeenth century [. …